There is plenty of attention devoted to silly laws on the books. Many of these kooky laws are infamous, such as in some states there is a requirement that automobiles traveling at night must be accompanied by a person on foot carrying a lantern. Or the absurd law that toothpaste and a toothbrush cannot be bought at the same time on a Sunday.
While these make for some good laughs, after all who can defend a law that prohibits making ugly faces at dogs which is regarded as inflammatory in Normal, OK., the nods and grins obscure a more important point. There are simply thousands and thousands of laws on the books and many of them are outdated, useless or redundant.
In this Bold Interview, James Copland of the Manhattan Institute suggests that we need to get busy repealing these old outdated laws.
Outdated laws have real consequences for society. First of all they create a bloated highly legalistic system of statute laws. The sheer number of laws makes it almost impossible for a sincerely law abiding citizen or business to steer clear of violations. These outdated laws can also create a “gotcha” situation for punitive and malicious actors to take advantage of the system to harm or defame their enemies.
It creates uncertainty for all parties, and leads to abuse by the few who have knowledge of fine print that gives them the power to harm others.
It isn’t all that difficult to imagine a situation where for example, two parties are at odds. Perhaps they are politicians involved in a closely contested race. And politician A makes the unfortunate mistake of making a funny face at a dog. Politician B demands action. It sounds absurd, but it is entirely possible.
More often, these old and pointless laws are applied against the poor and disempowered. It is rare for those of us in the professional classes to face scrutiny for sitting too long on a park bench, or jay walking. It isn’t at all rare for people who are poor or homeless to be issued legal violations for exactly the same behavior.
Many outdated laws hamper and confuse businesses. And often in cities or states, these laws are used to punish or even destroy businesses that the political class does not support. It can be personal, they may be protecting a friend, or it can be political, perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t like the idea of “that type” of business in their back yard.
Copland points out that some states, counties, and cities are taking the need to trim their law codes seriously. They are creating official positions within government to review the law code and recommend removal of old and redundant laws. There are also legislative movements to clean up the law codes all across the country. Congress could do a lot to help grow business by getting rid of useless laws.
Like anything else, from a garden hedge to household clutter, the law works best when it is clean, clear, and relevant. The ambiguity that arises from old and outmoded laws can lead to harm, inefficiency and injustice. It creates uncertainty for all parties, and leads to abuse by the few who have knowledge of fine print that gives them the power to harm others.
Clearly, much could be gained if legislatures all across the United States devoted as much attention to pruning and improving their current legal codes, as they do to writing new legislation. This may not be as simple as the much-ballyhooed 2 for 1 legislation put forward by Trump, which had the potential to be treated like a gimmick.
What is actually called for, the bold action that would have real impact throughout society, is a thorough well-considered assessment of law codes at every level. And for citizens and their representatives to demand the removal of outdated laws, the consolidation or redundant laws, and the clarification of poorly written laws that leave citizens and business vulnerable. It would be one of the most profound and useful acts to ever come out of government.